What is ulcerative colitis?

Ulcerative colitis is an inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), which is the collective name for non-infectious diseases that cause inflammation in the intestines. It causes inflammation and ulcers in the lining of the large intestine.

While this inflammation usually occurs in the rectum and lower part of the colon, it could affect the entire colon. Due to the inflammation the colon empties frequently, causing diarrhoea. The ulcers form in places where the inflammation has destroyed colon lining cells, bleeding and producing pus and mucus.

Ulcerative colitis can be difficult to diagnose because the symptoms are similar to other intestinal disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and Crohn's disease. Crohn's disease is different from ulcerative colitis in that it causes inflammation deeper within the intestinal wall, and also frequently involves the small bowel.


Ulcerative colitis is most common in the Caucasian population, with a prevalence of approximately 0.5% in Caucasian patients.  It is much less common in Black patients.

Who gets it and who is at risk?

Most sufferers of ulcerative colitis are between the ages 15 to 40, although children and older people can also develop the disease.  Men and women are equally affected and the disease seems to run in some families. Caucasians are much more likely to get it than blacks.

Read more:

How is ulcerative colitis diagnosed?

Symptoms of ulcerative colitis

Causes of ulcerative colitis

Reviewed by Dr Ismail Moola, MBCHB (UCT) FCP (SA) Cert Gastro Phys (SA). Specialist Physician / Gastroenterologist, Netcare Sunninghill Hospital; Lecturer, Department of Internal Medicine, Division of Gastroenterology, University of the Witwatersrand.

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